THAT MYSTERIOUS ANGEL AGAIN…

Today we will look at another cross, but not the usual kind.  We can tell that right away by the presence of the winged angel on it.  But why is the angel there, and who is he?

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

(Courtesy of Zoetmulder Ikonen: Russianicons.net)

Metal icons often show wear from long use, and the fact that the owners liked to polish them with chalk did not help to preserve surface detail.  That is why we often find fine details on metal icons worn smooth.

The kind of cross shown here had a string or cord through the upper part.  So it is a breast or pectoral cross.

The image at the top is the “Not Made by Hands” type, depicting the face of Jesus on the cloth.  But again, who is the angel?

In spite of wear, one can tell that he carries a long rod (мери́ло — merilo) in one hand, and a mirror (зерцало — zertsalo) in the other.  One might, therefore, expect him to be an Archangel.   But traditionally, this type of cast metal cross of an angel with the crossbar at his head is identified as the Ангел Великого СоветаAngel Velikogo Soveta — the “Angel of Great Counsel.”

We have already seen another “Angel of Great Counsel” type in icons of Jesus as the Blagoe Molchanie — the “Blessed Silence.”  And this metal cross is another form of Jesus as the “Angel of Great Counsel.”  Pectoral crosses of this type are often from the 18th century, though one may find them a little earlier and later as well.

“TO JUSTIFY THE WAYS OF GOD TO MEN”: THE VISION OF TARASIY

In a previous mention of “Vision” icons, I listed the type known as the “Vision of Tarasiy.”  Today we will take a look at that very detailed type through an example from Novgorod, dating to the 16th century.

First, we need to know that in the years 1506 to1508, the great trading city of Novgorod in northwestern Russia (and neighboring Pskov) was severely afflicted by the “Black Death” — the bubonic plague.  Following that, in August of 1508, the large trading area of Novgorod (remember that it was a great trading city with links to Western Europe) was destroyed by a great fire, killing some 2000 people, added to the large numbers who had already died in the Plague.

Those unfortunate events are the basis for the “Vision of Tarasiy” type.  It is based on a legend (found in the Life of St. Varlaam Khutuinskiy, who died in 1192).  It relates that Tarasiy, the sexton of the Transfiguration Cathedral, was in it at prayer one day.   As the legend goes, he saw Varlaam rise up from his tomb, go before the icons, and begin praying, with tears flowing from his eyes.

The risen saint then told Sexton Tarasiy to climb up to the top of the church three times, and look out.  On doing this, Tarasiy on his first climb saw Lake Ilmen towering over the city, threatening to inundate it with flooding.

On his second ascent, Tarasiy saw angels in the sky, shooting fiery arrows down upon the citizens of Novgorod.

On his third ascent, Tarasiy saw a flaming cloud above the city of Novgorod.

Terrified by what he had seen, Tarasiy listened as Varlaam interpreted the vision.  He said that because of the sins of the people of Novgorod, God wanted to flood the city as punishment.  But because of prayers made to Mary (“Mother of God,”) and the intercession of other saints, God decided to be merciful.  He would only send the plague, which would spare those who sincerely repented their sins.  And the plague would be followed by a fire.  All of this, theoretically, was a lessening of the “flood” punishment because of the intercession of Mary with her son Jesus — a notion very much in keeping with the medieval Western Catholic idea that Mary was constantly “staying the vengeful hand” of God.  It shows us why Mary was so popular among Russians — because she was believed to be more merciful and forgiving than God the Father or his son Jesus, and so was the reliable advocate of humans in the severe heavenly court.

(Novgorod State Museum)

In the upper part of the icon, we see the heavenly court, with  Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) seated on the throne, and Christ Immanuel sitting on his lap.

Mary at left and John the Forerunner at right are interceding with God for the city of Novgorod, and along with them various groups of other saints.

In the lower heavenly clouds, we see Tarasiy’s second sight: an army of angels shoots arrows of plague down upon the Novgorodians.  At right, we see the first sight of Tarasiy, the waters of Lake Ilmen looming over and threating to flood the city.  And in the center is the third sight of Tarasiy, the fiery cloud that was to set the city aflame.

If we look closely at the white church on the left, we can see Tarasiy climbing up a ladder to its roof; and we see him depicted twice on the roof, all representing his three trips up.  In the church its iconostasis is visible, as is Varlaam Khutuinskiy talking with Tarasiy.

In the city below, we see the arrows of plague falling on the inhabitants, and angels with books everywhere, looking in them to see the deeds of the inhabitants, deciding who lives and who dies.  There are people in boats on the Volkhov River that flows through Novgorod, and men crossing the wooden bridge on horseback.

vidtar5

The “Vision of Tarasiy” icon type gives us an insight into the pre-modern Russian mind and a way of thinking that lasted right into the early 20th century there (and still in some individuals), which is that disease is a punishment of God for sin, with no knowledge of the part played by germs, viruses, and tainted food and water, and natural disasters also are God’s vengeance for human misbehavior, whether fire or flood or famine.  It was the old (and rather futile) attempt — as Milton wrote — “to justify the ways of God to men.”  It is the world before science, and that is what we see in Eastern Orthodox iconography in general — the world before science.

MORE CROSS TALK

A reader in Croatia kindly sent me photos of this cast brass and enamel cross.

If you read my previous posting on cross inscriptions ( https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/the-instant-expert-in-russian-crosses), you will find some of that material repeated here.

First, this is a “Priestless” (Bezpopovtsy) Old Believer cross of the type called an “altar cross” (напрестольный крест — naprestol’nuiy krest).  One can tell it is a “Priestless” cross by looking at the image at the very top.  It is the “Not Made by Hands” image of Jesus on the cloth, the so-called “Abgar” image that resulted from the old story that Jesus once pressed a cloth to his face, which became miraculously imprinted on the cloth, and was thus the first Christian icon.  If this had been a “Priested” (Popovtsy) Old Believer casting, it would instead have a top image of Lord Sabaoth (God the Father) and the Holy Spirit as a dove; and it would also have the I. N. TS. I inscription that abbreviates Pilate’s text “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (Исус Назорянин, Царь Иудейский ).

(Courtesy of Nino Rilović)

(Courtesy of Nino Rilović)

Let’s take a closer look at the top of the cross:

We see the “Not Made by Hands” image, with the halo of Jesus having the HO ON inscription, meaning “He Who Is.”  Just below it is a Church Slavic inscription identifying the image:

ꙌБРАЗЪНЕРУКОТ
ВОРЕННЫЙ

OBRAZNERUKOT
VORENNUIY

If we join the two lines as they should be, they read:
Obraz Nerukotvorrenuiy, menaing “[the] IMAGE NOT-HAND-MADE,” or in more normal English, “The Image Not Made by Hands.”

Below that are two flying angels, bowing toward the crucified Jesus, their hands covered with cloths to show reverence.  Their abbreviated inscription reads:

АГГЛИ Г{ОСРО}ДНИ
ANGLI GOSPODNI (remember that a doubled Г Г is pronounced like English “ng”)
“Angels of the Lord”

And just below the two angels is the abbreviated inscription:

Ц[А]РЬ СЛ[А]ВЫ
TSAR SLAVUI
“KING OF GLORY.”

1 Corinthians 2:8 reads:
Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Now let’s look at the middle portion.  At the top, we see the IC XC abbreviation for “Jesus Christ,”   Remember that while the Old Believers use the , Ісусъ [Isus] spelling, the Russian State Church uses Іисусъ [Iisus]. and “Christ” is Христос — Khristos.

krestmiddle

Below the IC XC are these words:

СЫНЪ БОЖIЙ
SUIN” BOZHIY
“Son of God.”

At left we see the sun, and beneath it is its name:
С[О]ЛНЦЕ
SOLNTSE
“Sun”

At right is the moon, with its name:
ЛУНА
LUNA
“Moon”

Below is a long inscription that runs all the way along the main crossbar.  We will begin with the left side:

It reads:

КРЕСТУ ТВОЕМУ ПОКЛАНАЕМСЯ ВЛАДИКО
KRESTOU TVOEMOU POKLANAEMSYA VLADIKO
Literally,
Cross Of-You We-Bow-Before Master, or in better English,
“We bow before your cross, Master…” (Vladiko means “Ruler,” “Master.”)
It is often translated simply, “We honor/venerate your cross, Lord…”

And it finishes on the right side:

И СВЯАТОЕ ВОСКРЕСЕНИЕ СЛАВИМЪ
I SVYATOE VOSCKRESENIE SLAVIM”
Literally,
…And your holy resurrection we-praise
More smoothly,
“…And praise your holy resurrection.”

So all together, the inscription reads:
“We bow before your cross, Master, and Praise your holy resurrection.”

It is a common text, found in the Liturgy of John Chrysostom as well as in that of Basil, and repeated in the liturgy of the Third Week in Lent, etc.

In the lower portion of the upright beam, we see at left a spear, and at right a sponge on a reed.  By the spear is the letter K, abbreviating КОПИЕ — KOPIE, meaning “lance,” “spear.”   And by the sponge is the letter T, abbreviating  ТРОСТЬ — TROST’, meaning the reed/rod, with the sponge at its top.

In and near the lower crossbar, we see the walls and roofs of Jerusalem, and the letters НИКА — NIKA — Greek for “He Conquers.”

At the base of the upright we see these letters:

М  Л
Р  Б

They abbreviate

МЕСТО ЛОБНОЕ
MESTO LOBNOE

РАЙ БЫСТЬ
RAI BUIST’

meaning,

[The] Place [of the] Skull Paradise Became

In normal English, “The Place of the Skull became Paradise.”  “Lobnoe” is often more loosely translated as “Execution” or Judgment,” but Mesto Lobnoe refers to the place commonly called Calvary in English, from the Latin Calvariæ Locus, “Skull Place.”

That leads us to the final two inscriptions.

At the sides of the base of the cross are the letters

Г  Г

They abbreviate

ГОРА ГОЛГОФА
GORA GOLGOFA
“Hill [of] Golgotha”

“Golgotha” ultimately derived from the Aramaic Gagultâ, meaning “skull.”
Remember that Church Slavic (like Russian) has no “th” sound, so it is replaced with the “f” sound.

Just below the base of the cross is an opening in which lies a skull.  This follows the tradition that the Crucifixion happened at the center of the earth, and that was supposedly where the biblical first man, Adam, was buried.  So the skull is that of Adam.  And at the sides of the skull are the letters

Г  А
abbreviating
ГОЛОВА АДАМА
GOLOVA ADAMA
[the] SKULL (literally “head”) [of] ADAM

Some crosses (like this one) have a little plant at the base, a sprout of new life.

Now let’s look at the reverse inscription, which is the one most commonly found on these Old Believer brass crosses:

(Courtesy of Nino Rilović)

Though it has some variations in spelling (these are common), it is the standard text of the Octoechos: Exapostilarion, Monday Matins, found also in the Prayer of the Praise of the Cross (Похвала кресту — Pokhvala krestu) — which is:

Крест хранитель всей вселенной;
Krest khranitel’ vsey vselennoy

Крест красота церковная;
Krest krasota tserkovnaya

Крест царем держава;
Krest tsarem derzhava

Крест верным утверждение;
Krest vernuim utverzhdenie

Крест ангелом слава;
Krest angelom slava

Крест бесом язва.
Krest besom yazva

“The Cross is the protector of the whole universe,
the Cross is the beauty of the Church,
the Cross is the might of kings,
the Cross is the confirmation of the faithful,
the Cross is the glory of angels and scourge of demons

(Octoechos: Exapostilarion, Monday Matins — Festal Matins for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.

At the base of the inscription we see another eight-pointed cross (the Old Believers would not accept the Latin cross).  Though again the spelling is off, it has the usual abbreviations:

Ц[А]РЬ СЛ[А]ВЫ
TSAR SLAVUI
“KING OF GLORY.”

And

СЫНЪ БОЖIЙ
SUIN” BOZHIY
“Son of God.”

Also:

IC XC
IСУСЪ ХРИСТОС
ISUS” KHRISTOS
“Jesus Christ”

We see the letters K and T for Kopie and Trost‘ (spear and reed/rod).

Note that they have reversed the positions of the letters in the М  Л / Р  Б abbreviation for Mesto Lobnoe Ray Buist, but the meaning is the same — “The Place of the Skull Became Paradise.”

Finally there are the letters Г Г for Gora Golgofa, “Hill of Golgotha.”

I mentioned earlier that the example discussed in this posting is an “altar cross.”  It is useful to know that cast metal Russian crosses are generally classified as follows:

1.  The altar cross (Напрестольный Крест — Naprestol’nuiy Krest):  it is placed on the altar beside the Gospel book.  These are the large crosses one often sees.

2. The pectoral cross (Нагрудный Крест — Nagrudnuiy Krest, or Наперсный Крест,  Napersnuiy Krest)These are the small to medium-sized crosses with a loop or hole at the top, so they may be worn on a cord or chain about the neck.  They are worn both by the clergy (priests, monks) and by certain pious people.

3.  The kiot or “arkcross ( Киотный КрестKiotnuiy Krest):  These are the crosses placed on the shelf in the “beautiful corner” of a room, along with the family icons.  They are of medium size, and have no hole or loop at the top.  They may also be taken on trips as a kind of temporary prayer focus.  They include those crosses one sees with side panels showing Martha and Mary (“Mother of God”) on the left of the Crucifixion and the Apostle John and Centurion Longinos (Login) at the right.  Kiot crosses are sometimes commonly known as “house crosses.”

4.  The body cross (Тельный крест — Telnuiy Krest):  These are the usually quite small crosses with a hole or loop at the top, worn around the neck on a cord or chain, and given to each person at baptism.  So any Russian Orthodox person wore a body cross.

TRADITIONAL CREATION ICONS

Today I would like to talk a bit about “Creation” icons.

Traditional Eastern Orthodoxy accepted the traditional account of Creation — the biblical account found at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament.  If you had asked a typical Russian believer in the mid-19th century when the world and humans came into being, he would have told you that it happened 5,508 years before the birth of Jesus.

Then came Charles Charles Darwin and radiometric dating.  We now know that humanity did not begin with a male and female created from dirt some 7,525 years ago, but rather that the earth is billions of years old, and humans evolved out of earlier life forms, instead of being created from earth by a deity.

There is still considerable difference of opinion in Eastern Orthodoxy.  Some cling to the traditional creation story, while others, accepting the inevitable, attempt to somehow reconcile divine creation with Darwin and science.  But in traditional icon painting, there is only one story, and that is the traditional tale of Genesis.

We see that tale depicted in this rather typical “Creation” icon.

If we look at the top, we find these incriptions:

The two large words read СОТВОРЕНИЕ СВЕТА — SOTVORENIE SVETA.

Sotvorenie means “Creation.”  Svet can mean “light,” but it also means “world.”  Here it has the “world” meaning.  So the title inscription reads “CREATION OF THE WORLD.”

In the little circle between the two title words, we see two figures seated on a throne and surrounded by stylized clouds.  That on the left is identified by an inaccurate spelling as (correctly) Господь Вседержителъ — Gospod” Vsederzhitel, meaning “the Lord Almighty.”  That is the icon title used for Jesus on countless icons.  At right is another figure identified (this time accurately spelled) as Господь Саваофъ — Gospod’ Savaof — meaning “Lord Sabaoth.”  That is the traditional icon title for God the Father.  As we can see, old Eastern Orthodoxy had a rather literal view of the Trinity as being separate persons (the Holy Spirit, not seen here, is traditionally depicted as a dove).

If we look below these inscriptions, we see God the Father having stepped down from his throne (this time no Jesus is seen):

The inscription at left tells us what is happening.  It reads:

Въ а денъ
Въ начале
Вогъ сотворилъ светъ

V” a den”
V” nachale
Bog” sotvoril” svet”

It means:

On [the] first day (remember that letters can also be numbers, so “a” is “1” or “first”)
In [the] beginning
God created [the] world/light

If we move from section to section, it tells us what God did on each day of creation, including eventually the creation of animals and of Adam and Eve.  And going beyond the creation days, It also includes the expulsion of Adam and Eve from “Paradise,” and the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, as seen here:

If you look at the figure of Cain at lower right (red tunic, white pants, black boots), you will see a dark figure standing right behind him. That is a chort (чёрт), a devil, an evil demon.  And in Russian iconography that is the way demons are depicted — smoky black, and with hair standing high up on the head.  The chort is telling Cain to kill his brother (the old “the Devil made me do it” ploy). Now oddly enough, it was still commonly believed by many ordinary Russians — right into the early 20th century — that if a person suddenly committed some horrible deed, it was likely due to the influence of a devil.  Some no doubt still believe it.

In the center of the Creation icon, we see scenes taking place in heaven:

In the center is Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — with the Holy Spirit as a dove just above him.  At left God the Father stands behind the crucified Jesus.  And at right, Lord Sabaoth is sending Jesus as the Logos, the Angel of Great Counsel, into the world.  These scenes are intended to show us that the so-called “Plan of Salvation” existed from the very beginning.  The two red and white circles with faces just below are the sun and moon.  Angels stand in the background.

These “Creation” icons (at least in the traditional form) tend to be much the same, sometimes with more detail, sometimes less.  But one does notice some significant differences among them:

Look at the central image in this segment of another and earlier “Creation” icon:

Where we found God the Father seated in the previous example, this icon shows God the Father lying on a bed.  That is the image depicting Genesis 2:2:

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

So there he is, all worn out, taking a rest on his bed to recover from the work of creating.  This shows us just how literally Russian Orthodoxy traditionally took the Creation tale in Genesis.

We also find other notable differences among “Creation” icons.  For example, whereas the first icon shown here is titled Sotvorenie Sveta, we may also find the title of such icons as Sotvorenie Mira. Мир (mir) is another word meaning “world” (it can also mean “peace,” but not in this context).

Most notable, perhaps, is that there is some confusion among icon painters as to the figure used for the Creator.  As we have seen, the first icon shows “Lord Sabaoth” — God the Father — doing the creating.  But other images show Jesus as Logos (with or without wings, no beard, but with the seven-pointed halo) creating.  Sometimes even this Logos image is given the “Lord Sabaoth” title.  Others give the Logos image the “Lord Almighty” title traditionally used for Jesus.

The reason for these variations is that while Genesis speaks of God creating the world, it says nothing of Jesus.  But in the New Testament, the Gospel called “of John” ( no one really knows who wrote it) says in speaking of Jesus as the Logos (“Word”), “All things were made by him…”  So icon painters are left to sort out the confusion caused by the change in theology over the centuries, and some do it one way, some another.

“Creation” icons have rather lost their popularity in modern Eastern Orthodoxy, now that one has to try to reconcile their quite literal visual interpretation of Genesis with the facts of scientific earth history and evolution.  But there are still Eastern Orthodox believers who adhere to as literal a view of Creation as one sees in the traditional iconography, paying no attention to the revelations of science in the modern world.

GRAIN GODDESS: THE SPORITEL’NITSA KHLEBOV TYPE

Today’s posting is also the result of a reader question.

The inquirer came across a Marian icon showing Mary on a cloud, arms outstretched, above a field of grain.  The icon type that describes is a rather recent Russian type called Спорительница хлебов — Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov.  The first word means  a female who causes something to advance or thrive; the second part refers to bread and to grain crops.  So we can loosely translate it as “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive.”  The name is found variously in English as “She Who Ripens the Grain,” “Provider of Bread” “Provider of the Bread of Life,” “Multiplier of Bread,” and so on.  But the essence of the name indicates that Mary makes the grain thrive, which means people will have an abundant harvest and much bread.

As I mentioned, this is a rather recent icon type.  That, and the fact that it originated in the State Church, accounts for why examples of it are generally painted in the realistic manner, rather than in the stylization preferred by Old Believer iconographers.  The type, in origin, relates to the Starets (Elder) Amvrosiy (Ambrose), who lived at the famous Optina Monastery.  He always faithfully kept Marian festivals by praying before an icon of Mary in his cell.

In the year 1890, Abbess Ilariya (Hilaria) of the Volkhov Convent sent Starets Amvrosiy a newly-painted icon partly based on an “All Saints” icon in her convent, but with the addition of a field of ripe grain and sheaves below the image of Mary.  Amvrosiy gave the new type its “She Who Makes the Grain Thrive” title.  Due to Amvrosiy’s efforts, quite a number of copies of the icon were distributed among his admirers.  Amvrosiy spent his last days at a convent he had helped establish in Kaluga, where he died among the nuns.

According to tradition, the Sporitel’nitsa icon helped to end a drought and famine in the year 1892, so it became known as one of the many Russian supposed “wonderworking” icons.  Its very late date of “appearance” accounts for why it is generally found today mostly in printed reproductions (as in the example shown  above) rather than as old painted icons dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, such as this one:

This icon type always reminds me how little has changed in religion since ancient times.  Essentially the Sporitel’nitsa Khlebov shows Mary filling the role of a “Nature Goddess” who has power over the growth and harvest of grain, which was the role of the Goddess Demeter, also known as Ceres — the goddess of the harvest and of grain in the classical Greco-Roman world.

THE “TREE HOUSE” OF DAVID OF THESSALONIKI

Here is an icon pattern from the Russian Stroganov Podlinnik   Today’s focus is on the fellow in the tree, shown in this example from the month of June:

davidsolunskiy

The inscription above him — written in the handwriting style of the late 16th-early 17th century — reads:

ПР[Е]П[О]Д[O]БНАГО ОЦА НАШЕГО Д[А]В[И]ДА ИЖЕ В СЕЛУНИ СЕД РЯСА ВОХРА З БЕЛИЛОМ

PREPODOBNAGO OTSA NASHEGO DAVIDA IZHE V SELUNI
VENERABLE        FATHER   OUR        DAVID   which-is  In THESSALONIKI

RYASA VOKHRA Z BELILOM
HABIT  IN OCHRE WITH WHITE

ИЖЕ = IZHE is a Church Slavic word found often in the old painters’ manuals and in the calendar of saints.  It means approximately “which/who is,” “the one which is” or “the one who is.”  It often distinguishes saints by the place traditionally associated with them.  When used of saints in this manner,  it means loosely “the one in…”  In today’s case, this David, to distinguish him from others, is “the one in Thessaloniki.

So all together, it means:

Our Venerable Father David, the one in Thessaloniki;
Grey, habit in ochre with white.

The first part of the text identifies the saint:  David of Thessaloniki.   The second part tells how to paint him: Grey (hair and beard), and his monastic habit ochre with white.

Being of Thessaloniki, David is one of the many Greek saints celebrated in Russian Orthodoxy as well.  Here is a Greek icon of him:

davidthessaloniki

Being in red, the inscription above the saint is a bit difficult to make out, but it looks to be much the same as the usual inscription for him in Greek icons: O όσιος Δαβίδ ο εν Θεσσαλονίκη — in old pronunciation, Ho Hosios Dabid, ho en Thessaloniki, but in modern Greek, O Osios David o en Thessaloniki.  You will recall that Hosios/Osios is the title used for a monastic male saint in Greek.

The icon shows David sitting in his almond tree residence, and a non-saint kneeling at right.  We know he is not a saint because he has no halo.

At left is seated a crowned figure identified by another red inscription, partly abbreviated as:

Ο ΠΡΟΦ ΔΑΒΙΔ
Ο Προφήτης Δαβίδ
Ho Prophetes Dabid/O Prophetes David
THE PROPHET DAVID

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the King David of the Old Testament is commonly titled as “Prophet.”  In this Greek icon, King David holds a scroll reading:

δικαιος ως φοινιξ ανθησει ωσει κεδρος

That is an excerpt from Psalm 92:12 (91:13 Septuagint):
δίκαιος ὡς φοῖνιξ ἀνθήσει, ὡσεὶ ἡ κέδρος ἡ ἐν τῷ Λιβάνῳ πληθυνθήσεται.
The righteous shall flourish as a palm-tree: he shall be increased as the cedar in Lebanon.

Remember that in icons, people speak through their scrolls, like in cartoon bubbles.  So King David is saying that David of Thessaloniki is one of the righteous, and of course the mention of two kinds of trees relates to David of Thessaloniki living in a tree.

The figure shown in the clouds above is of course Jesus.

So much for the linguistic and symbolic aspect of these images.  But just who was David of Thessaloniki, and why did he live in a tree?

Well, you know from earlier postings about the odd kind of saint called a “stylite,” one who lives on a pillar.  The term for tree-dwelling saints is “dendrite.”  So David of Thessaloniki is a dendrite.

To make a long story short, David is said to have been an ascetic monk living roughly between 450-550 c.e.  He was thought to have come to Thessaloniki in Greece from Mesopotamia.  He entered the monastery of Saints Theodore and Merkourios.  While there, he somehow got it into his head that the thing to do was to make his dwelling up in the branches of the almond tree that grew beside the monastery church.  He thought that if he did that, he would somehow learn God’s will for him.  So he lived in the tree in the heat of summer and cold of winter for three years.  After that time, an angel appeared to him, saying that God had heard his prayers, but that it was time for David to climb down and live in a monastic cell like other monks.  Because of his eccentric asceticism, David gained a local reputation as a holy man and healer, and was visited by many people seeking his help.

For some reason, these stories tend to leave out details such as how the fellow living in the tree managed the sanitary necessities of being a human, but then such things are seldom mentioned in hagiography.

Greek icons of David of Thessaloniki often have him holding a scroll upon which is written:

Μοναχός εστιν αληθώς ο μηδέν έχων εν τω παρόντι βίω ει μη μόνον τον Χριστόν.

It means loosely:

“The true monk is one who in this life has nothing but Christ.”

 

GOING UP? ICONS OF THE ASCENSION

Today we will take a look at the the  “Ascension” type, called Voznesenie in Russia, and in Greek icons He Analepsis Η ΑΝΑΛΗΨΙC.
In the Bible, we find Ascension narratives only in the Gospel attributed to Luke and in the book of Acts.  Both are rather minimal.  There is also a very brief mention in the Gospel called “of Mark,” but it is not found in the earliest manuscripts, and is a later addition.

Here is a pleasant late Russian example of the Ascension type painted in the traditional manner:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The Church Slavic inscription reads ВОЗНЕСЕНИЕ ГОСПОДНЕ — Voznesenie Gospodne — “Ascension of the Lord.”

At both sides are Twelve Apostles, identified by inscription as “Apostles of the Lord.”  And in the center, as is common in “Ascension” icons, stands Mary.

Above is Jesus, rising into heaven in a circle of light carried by two angels.  Note that Jesus sits on a rainbow.  That element (not mentioned in the Gospels) comes from two main sources, the first being the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, chapter 1:

26 And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.

27 And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.

28 As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

The second source is the book of Revelation, the “Apocalypse of John”:

After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.

And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.

And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

What we see in this icon, then, is not the usual Western European depiction of a standing Jesus slowly rising into the clouds, but rather a depiction of Jesus raised up to the heavenly throne on which he sits and is said to come in judgment.

Here is an earlier image of the Ascension found in the Syriac Rabbula Gospels, usually dated to the 6th century, though the book as a whole may be a composite volume of more than one date.  This depiction borrows elements from Ezekiel and from the Revelation:

In it, Jesus is not seated but standing, and there is no rainbow.  There are six “standard” angels (four above, two beside Mary).  Two hold the oval in which Jesus stands, two approach Jesus with wreaths of victory, and two look toward the apostles. But just below Jesus, we see a creature with four faces, wings filled with eyes, and wheels at both sides.  This too comes from Ezekiel 1 and from the Revelation 4.  The four heads, in Eastern Orthodox tradition, symbolize the four Evangelists Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John.  The wheels, in Eastern Orthodox theology, are the rank of angel called “Thrones.”

If you look carefully to upper left and right of the image, you will see the moon and the sun depicted as living beings.  Here is the moon:

And here the sun:

If we look at the group of Apostles, we see there are twelve.  As the Gospels relate, at the time of the Ascension there were only eleven, Judas having betrayed Jesus and committed suicide.  But the Rabbula image and many later examples of the Ascension add Paul as a twelfth apostle in the type (the twelfth was actually Matthias, chosen after the ascension and not depicted in it).  Of course the presence of Paul is an anachronism, but Eastern Orthodoxy likes to see the Ascension icon as also an image of the Church, and so we see Mary at center (also considered an image of the Church on her own), as well as those apostles later considered the two chief apostolic founders of the Church, Peter and Paul.

Here is a much later Russian example that has neither rainbow nor the symbols of the Evangelists nor “Thrones” nor Paul.  It is influenced not only by Western and less anachronistic depictions of the Ascension, but also shows the increased realism favored by the State Church in later times.  Here the three chief figures at bottom are Mary, the Apostle Peter at left, and the Apostle John at right:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

Here is another Russian example, this time again painted in the traditional “stylized” manner, with much attention given to the hill from which Jesus is rising:

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The Ascension type is found not only as a separate icon, but also in icons showing the Resurrection and major Church festivals.

Now the interesting thing about Ascension icons is that they perpetuate right into modern times the ancient, pre-scientific notion of a universe that has humans living on a flat earth above which is a solid firmament, and above that firmament is not only a sea but also the throne of God.  “Heaven” in traditional Jewish and Christian belief was the sky, so of course when Jesus ascends, he ascends into the sky.  Now, however, thanks to science, we know that the firmament is not a solid dome, that there is no sea above it, and no throne room of God up there, where he sits like an ancient king.  Consequently, many modern Christians, in an attempt to adapt, have begun thinking of Heaven not as the sky, but as somehow in a separate dimension.  That view, however, is not in keeping with the Ascension icons nor with biblical accounts.  But early Christians, not knowing that the earth was round, and not knowing that the earth is only a tiny particle in an immense universe, thought that all Jesus had to do to reach Heaven was to go up.  Of course “up” would take one in multiple and different directions of space, depending on where and when on the globe one went up, as the earth revolves in its path around the sun.  And we know that one can go light years (the distance light travels in a year) in any direction and not find a physical Heaven as described in the Old and New Testaments.  All this provides major problems for today’s “literalist” Christians, which is why they tend not to think about the matter.